Summary of the findings from our 2016 technical communications survey

We asked Technical Authors to complete a survey into the issues and challenges they face in 2016 and beyond. There were four main themes that stood out:

  1. Issues around working in an Agile environment.
  2. A need to develop skills in creating training screencasts. This included how to use tools, structuring and presenting content, and the ideal length of each video.
  3. Improving the status of Technical Authors and the Technical Publications department in the organisation. This topic has come up in previous surveys.
  4. Developing skills in using DITA.

We’ve looked at Agile recently, and we’ll revisit the other topics in the upcoming months.

Thanks to everyone who took part in the survey.

Being Agile in technical documentation – Part two

Two years ago, we wrote a number of posts, and an Adobe-sponsored whitepaper, on Agile and its effects on technical communication. This topic was picked by others, including Sarah O’Keefe and Mattias Sander, who made further suggestions. We thought it was time to revisit this topic, and expand on some of the issues raised.

In Part one, we looked at Agile and the Lean method’s principles of maximising value and minimising waste. Here in Part two, we look at how we can minimise waste in the document production process.

Removing waste from user’s interaction with the product

Let’s briefly touch on value and waste during the use of the product by the user.

User Assistance can contribute to the user being less “wasteful” when they’re using the product: minimising the time having to stop when they get stuck, or having to rework things to fix mistakes. This means you need to provide the right information at the right time, in the right place, and in the right format.

It needs to provide the required information to the reader as fast as possible. In practice, this can mean having the Help embedded in the application itself. It might also mean creating different documents to suit different audiences, or even personalised content. It also implies User Assistance needs to be as short as possible, but not shorter.

This also means you’ll need to carry out some usability testing of the content and perhaps even A/B testing. You have to test to check what you’re producing is what gives value to users.

Removing waste from user documentation process

Let’s look at how we could apply Lean principles to writing technical documentation in an Agile environment.

Is it needed?

The Lean approach can help us identify which parts to document, and which to leave out. Under Lean, you should only document what customers tell you is absolutely necessary. Only information that adds value to the user, or increases their productivity, should be included. If the information isn’t needed by anyone, we shouldn’t write it (unless we have to do it for legal or other reasons).

By going through a design process of empathy, defining needs, generating ideas, prototyping and testing, we can identify the best way to solve a specific problem. In practice, User Assistance (in other words, the online Help and user documentation) should be considered part of the product design, and included in the initial design planning, rather than being left to the end. This requires a change in product planning thinking, as documentation is often treated as an afterthought, pushed to the end of the development process.

In an Agile development process, designers will create Use Cases for each feature, and technical communicators can do something similar. Use Cases can be used in the planning of User Assistance to identify who will use it (the audience), what value it will provide (or what problem it will solve), and when they will use it.

Load levelling

In addition to the waste of “non-value adding work”, in our simplified description of Lean there are also wastes of “overburden” and “unevenness”. These relate to having too much work to do in the timescales allowed, and having to stop and wait for something you need in order to carry on working. Instead, our goal is to have a consistent, productive rhythm to our work.

For technical communicators, this “overburden” and “unevenness” could be waiting for reviews, waiting for edits, waiting for work, or waiting for approvals. It can also mean wasting time having to switch tools or stop and start different tasks. If we can measure these wastes, we can justify the need to change working practices.

Levelling allows a consistent workflow, which makes it possible to set standards and identify abnormalities. The Lean methodology contains a number of techniques for smoothing out a work schedule, such as a triage approach to prioritising new work requests. One of the key ways we can level the technical writing workload is simply to start the project earlier. The benefits from avoiding having to stop and start, or rush things at the end, may outweigh any waste from having to go back and amend some of the content written at the start of the project.

One-piece flow

Related to load levelling is continuous, or one-piece, flow. W. Edwards Deming proved in the 1950s that implementing a continuous flow system, instead of working in batches, can have a significant impact on improving quality and reducing throughput time.

A continuous flow system works like serving people food from a counter. Customers move forward, picking up their stater, main course and pudding as they go down the line. When a serving station runs out of food, there should be a new tray of supplies ready to replenish it just in time to serve the next customer. People only work on one piece at a time and only one piece of work moves from one stage to the next.

Deming proved one-piece flow results in fewer bottlenecks, less waiting and faster throughput. You pull work from the previous step when you have available resources. It also means that mistakes appear earlier. As items are pulled one piece at a time, you should have one only faulty item to deal with, rather than a large batch of defects. If you fix the problem, identifying what caused it, it goes away before it can escalate.

One example of technical communicators working in batches is when they send out drafts of whole manuals to reviewers. One piece flow could mean passing on content for review in smaller pieces – perhaps even issuing content for review on a daily basis, making it an integral part of the product development process.


One of the tools used in both Lean and Agile projects is a Kanban board. This is a visual representation of the pieces flowing through the process. It can help the team identify any problems, and control and regulate the amount of new tasks given to the team. It can be the case that no new work is added to the board until a current work piece is defined as “done”.

One approach is to include the technical writing task in the project Kanban board. This could mean if there are problems with creating documentation, these are brought to the surface for fixing there and then.

Alerting and fixing any problems early

The philosophy of both Lean and Agile is to bring problems and defects to the front, and force people to confront them and fix the immediate and underlying problems.

Within Lean, and often in Agile, when a problem or issue is identified, everyone is empowered to stop the process, and swarm around the problem to solve it immediately. So could a technical communicator have the right to flag to stop the process? Would a development team be willing to face up to the sheer amount of documentation and work with the technical communicator to tackle the problem? The answer should be yes, but it would depend on how closely the team adheres to Agile principles. For this to happen, the team needs to have an authoring system that enables non-professional technical communicators (such as developers) to be able to contribute content.

Dealing with variations in project plans

Technical communicators need to avoid having to pull the emergency cord, and this means they need to be able to deal with some of the variations that can arise as projects change over time.

In Part three

In Part three of this series, we’ll look at how we can modify our writing process and tools so we can implement these approaches into how we work.

Being Agile in technical documentation – Part one

Two years ago, we wrote a number of posts, and an Adobe-sponsored whitepaper, on Agile and its effects on technical communication. This topic was picked by others, including Sarah O’Keefe and Mattias Sander, who made further suggestions. We thought it was time to revisit this topic, and expand on some of the issues raised.

This is part one of a series of posts on this topic. 

Being Agile in technical documentation – Part one

Agile creates a number of challenges for technical communicators, which can mean they need to adapt their working methods in order to work efficiently.

What is Agile?

Agile development is a way of managing IT development teams and projects that has been around since 2001. It’s an alternative to traditional project methods, which, it was felt, often lead to unsuccessful projects.

One of the main criticisms of traditional project management methods was they often led to teams working to a plan that became less relevant to user needs, current technology, and market trends over the lifetime of a project. This could result in software that were already out of date by the time it was released. The approach was also criticised because some faults might not be identified until towards the end of the project, which could make fixing them time-consuming and expensive.

In 2001, a group of developers published the Agile Manifesto, which outlined their vision of how they felt software projects should be run.

In Agile projects, the goal is to develop robust products quickly. The project and its deliverables are typically broken down into short development cycles, which are usually two weeks, and, based on the feedback and lessons learnt from these cycles, the project adapts and changes over time. The team delivers early, frequent and continuous releases of products.

One goal is for teams to find problems quickly, and either correct a problem immediately or eliminate the affected feature altogether. This should mean there is less waste, something we’ll look at in more detail later.

Agile’s effect on writing

In traditional project environments, technical communicators often use functional specification documents, which describe what will be delivered, and any available prototypes, as their information source. At the start of the project, they have detailed information on what the product is meant to do.

The Agile manifesto proposes working software over comprehensive specification documentation, which often means there is far less written information for technical communicators to use. They often have to produce content based on word-of-mouth descriptions, fluid sketches, use cases, and business cases.

Managing Agile projects relies far more on face-to-face communication and self-directing teams than any formal documentation mapping out the whole project for years in advance.

The release of products in short, iterative, cycles can mean there is little time to write the user documentation before the product is released. Also, if the product is changing with every release, there may be a need to rework the content that’s already been written.

An Agile approach to technical writing

Technical communicators who work in an Agile environment often need to adapt the way they work to meet these new challenges. In other words, they need an Agile approach to technical writing.

Agile is based on a manufacturing method called Lean, and we suggest this Agile approach to technical writing should be based on Lean principles as well.

Learning from Lean

The Lean methodology is a method for making things. Originally developed for manufacturing, today it is used in healthcare, programming and other business areas. Lean is an adaptation of the Toyota Production System, a set of principles and methods developed in Japan in the 1950s for creating high quality, reliable cars at a reasonable price.

In a nutshell, Lean’s approach is to:

Maximise the value to the customer


minimise waste.

Lean is a never ending process. You constantly seek out waste, strive for perfection, look for maximising the value. Agile shares this philosophy of continuously striving for perfection, looking to maximise the value to the customer and avoid time wasted on activities that don’t add value.

About value

In Lean, you start by understanding what the customer values in the product. Once you’re able to define value, you can then pinpoint where and how value is added during the development process.

You focus your efforts on ensuring that resources are targeted to deliver that value as effectively and efficiently as possible.

If a feature or a step in the development process doesn’t add value, it is seen as a “waste”. In Lean, you challenge whether those “wastes” in the development process are needed or if they should be eliminated.

The result is an emphasis on providing the value customers are willing to pay for, whilst simultaneously identifying where you can reduce costs.

About waste

Waste is categorised into eight types in Lean. However, we can simplify things by looking at the three original wastes that were defined in the Toyota Production System.

The three types of waste are: “non-value adding work”, “overburden” and “unevenness”. Non-value adding work can mean the waste of time and effort on activities or features that don’t give the user any value. Overburden can mean someone having more work to do than they can handle, which often leads to mistakes, defects and poor quality. Unevenness can mean the times when you have to stop or slow down, while you wait for someone else to give you a item needed in order to do the work. Instead, our goal is to have a consistent, productive rhythm to our work.

Why look at Lean instead of Agile?

Agile has developed processes and methods for reducing wastes for developers. However, these processes and methods can result in waste appearing at other points in the overall process, such when we create the end-user documentation.

For example, we might find that leaving documenting to a late stage in the development process in order to avoid the wastes caused by creating content that’s not needed or requires reworking is a false economy. This approach could be more wasteful than starting the project earlier. Using Lean can help us identify how to eliminate or minimise those wastes.

We can look at value and waste from two aspects – during production and during the use of the product by the user. This we’ll begin to do in Part two of this series.

Explaining complicated stuff using simple words

Book coverRandall Munroe’s latest book Thing Explainer will be released tomorrow. In the book, Munroe uses line drawings and only the thousand most common words to provide simple explanations for complicated objects.

It’s good practice to use words that are commonly understood. In some industries, Technical Authors have to write using only a limited list of approved words  (a “controlled vocabulary”). For example, there are controlled vocabularies for aircraft maintenance manuals, because some maintenance engineers have a only limited amount of English.

Sometimes, the word “stuff” doesn’t help the reader to understand. So what do you do when readers need to understand the small differences between objects, particularly when they can have a big effect on what happens next?

XKCD cartoon

In order to write clearly, there are times when you need to use more than the thousand most common words. Technical Authors deal with this issue by using concept, terms and references topics. When they need to use words that some users might not understand, Technical Authors provide a link (or cross reference ) to another topic. This other topic provides an explanation or a definition of the word or concept. The topic can contain words, images, diagrams, animations or videos to help the user grasp the meaning.

It’s good to use simple words, but it’s more important to make sure the information is clear.

Dates for our next advanced technical writing & new trends course

training room

Here are the dates for our next advanced technical writing & new trends course:

  • The next public classroom course will be held on 28th January 2016, at our training centre in central London (SW7).
  • A live Web course, for delegates based outside the UK, will be held on 6 & 7 January 2016 (2 x 3 hour sessions).

Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication by attending Cherryleaf’s popular training course. Don’t get left behind: past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger, Tekla and Visa International.

See Advanced technical writing & new trends in technical communication training.

Five predictions for technical communication in 2016 and beyond

It’s not quite 2016 yet, but here are our five predictions for technical communication in 2016 and beyond.

Please note:

Here are our predictions:

1. As documentation becomes to be seen more as part of product design, so the technical writing process will become part of the product development process

We’re likely to see reviews and version control follow the developers processes, and be managed via tools such as Git.

2. Markdown will break out from being an authoring format for developers and into the mainstream

Markdown offers separation of look and feel, variables, topic-based authoring and single sourcing, in a tools-neutral, simple to use, format. At a push, you can also do conditional publishing, too (information typing is lacking, though). Because it is used by developers themselves, we’re likely to see the tools develop at a rapid pace, and become more powerful and easier to use.

3.  More technical communicators will use Lean methods when working in an Agile environment

Lean is something we’ve been discussing for a number of years, and seems to have picked up as a new topic at conferences recently.

4. We’ll see greater use of the imperative voice in topic titles

We explored this earlier in the year – The decline of the gerund in technical documentation?

5. The popular Help authoring tools will be able to generate embedded Help and on-boarding screens

This is more a wish, but it wouldn’t surprise us if the Help authoring tools will enable authors to single-source Help text that will be embedded in the UI itself or appear within on-boarding screens.

Your predictions?

Do you agree? What you see as future trends? Use the Comments box to let us know.

Mankind – overcomplicating products for 1.8 million years

Olduvai stone chopping tool

In the radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, described the oldest man-made object in the museum – the Olduvai stone chopping tool. This was made approximately 1.8 million years ago in Tanzania, where the first humans originated.

MacGregor explained the tool has more than six chippings that sharpened this rock into a tool, when it only need two. He said:

“Those chips tell us that right from the beginning, we, unlike other animals, have wanted to make things more complicated than they need to be.”

Complexity, it appears, has been part of product design and manufacture right from the beginning. Did the need for user instructions follow shortly afterwards?